Making things better….

From a simple aspirin to lifesaving chemotherapy, the pharmaceutical industry discovers, develops, produces and distributes medication to cure or vaccinate against diseases or ease the symptoms. The UK sector invests more than £4.3billion a year in research and development, employs more than 73,000 people and has many routes into it. So if you are looking at a career in a globally respected UK sector which has the purpose of making us all feel better and live longer, read on.

About the pharmaceutical sector

We all benefit from the pharmaceutical industry. From cradle to grave, every one of us uses some form of medicine at some point – from teething gel for toddlers to palliative pain relief for end of life care. Some of humanity’s greatest achievements have been in the pharmaceutical industry. And it is still working towards keeping us healthy, finding ways to protect us against diseases old and new and developing products which will improve our quality of life.

What can I do?

The sector divides into three main areas, each with very different career opportunities.

Product Research and Development

This is the first stage in identifying the need for – and then developing – a new drug. It includes:

  • Lab based roles - scientists such as biochemists and microbiologists, lab technicians
  • Clinical trials - administrators, research associates (the people who run the trials) and healthcare professionals who bring their front line knowledge to the process
  • Regulatory Affairs - roles which involve ongoing quality monitoring, collation and submission of data and information to the regulatory agencies for approval

Manufacture and Production

Once a product has been approved by the regulatory authorities, it can be used by patients. Whilst the manufacture of medicines is much like any other process, it is surrounded by industry specific regulations for obvious reasons.

So alongside careers as production operatives and engineers, are roles covering:

  • Quality assurance - making sure there is no variance in manufacturing process
  • Quality control - making sure every batch of medication meets the strict pharmacological regulations
  • Computer system validation - ensuring that all computer systems are operating as they should
  • Facilities engineering - making sure that the infrastructure and building are safe and efficient to work and manufacture products in

Distribution, Sales and Marketing

Once the product has been made, it needs to get to the people who will either buy or prescribe it. Roles in this area include:

  • Medical representative - meeting healthcare professionals and introducing them to newly developed products
  • Marketing manager - developing marketing materials and strategies
  • Medical Science Liaison Officer - providing scientific information to customers
  • Pharmacist

In addition there are roles in legal services, distribution, finance, HR and logistics.

Female scientist researcher, pharmaceuticals doing experiments in laboratory


The industry has opportunities in all three areas – product research and development, manufacture/production and distribution, sales and marketing. Each area looks for a different skill set, but all need good teamwork, time management and creativity. Andrew Croydon, Skills and Education Policy and Examinations Director of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry confirms this.

‘Knowledge and understanding in the workplace must be complemented with possessing the right skills – both tangible and specialist. Increasingly, fulfilling careers in the industry are maximised by those who show adaptability and an ability for inter-disciplinary working.’

Skills you will need:

  • For a science based career in the sector you’ll need a deep understanding of the specific area you have studied to degree level and in a STEM subject. The sector is always looking for graduates with Masters and PhD postgraduate qualifications - for some roles they are essential.
  • In other areas of the sector the academic requirements are in areas appropriate to them - e.g. for a legal career in the sector, a law degree is needed.

There are other routes into the sector which can replace or enhance these qualifications. See the Pathways and Qualification section.

All areas of the industry need:

  • Attention to detail and an analytical mind
  • Problem Solving Skills
  • Strong numeracy and IT skills
  • Planning, organisation, project management and presentation skills
  • Teamwork
  • Commercial Awareness
  • An enquiring mind and a creative approach

Pathways and Qualifications

So, how can you get your career in the industry going?

The most important first step is to make sure you develop your STEM skills early on. Completing five GCSEs to at least Level 4 or 5 is essential, and they must include Maths, Science and English Language. 

Once you’ve got those under your belt, deciding on the right pathway for you is important.

Higher Education

To enter the sector via university, you will need to be studying for a degree in a STEM subject, and probably a life science. Many universities offer 4 year science based sandwich degrees, which include a year out in the industry. This gives you valuable experience in the workplace where you will gain real industry knowledge and develop your technical skills in a hands on environment.

If your degree doesn’t include this, you can apply directly to companies for schemes such as internships. Many of the largest sector employers such as AstraZeneca, Pfizer and the NHS offer either internships or graduate training schemes.


Want to enter the sector, but would rather complete an apprenticeship? The great news is that this sector has embraced the apprenticeship route. You could join an apprenticeship at between level 2 and level 7, and apprenticeships at various levels are offered by companies like Unilever, GSK or AstraZeneca. The requirements for each apprenticeship vary depending on the level, but all require at least 5 GCSEs at level 4 or 5, including Maths, Science and English language. For a degree level apprenticeship (level 6), you will also need A levels equalling around 112 UCAS points, including relevant science subjects at a C or above and additional science or maths. Level 3 qualifications such as a BTEC will often be considered.

You can find an apprenticeship online through the Careermap website.

Work Placements and Work Experience

Work placements and experience are a bonus on your CV. Some companies may offer one or two week work experience placements during school holidays for 16-18 year olds. These aren’t generally advertised so you need to research companies near you and make contact directly, sending a CV and covering letter. CREST and Nuffield Bursary placements are also a great way of gaining experience in research and development. They involve completing a project, usually in the summer between years 12 and 13.

Test Pharmaceutic at manufacture on Pharmaceutical factory for facility people in Clean hospital industrial.Expert Scientist Biology Testing New Manufacturing stuff food products in lab

So, the industry is right beside you, ready to support you if you are thinking of being part of it, however you choose to enter it!

Did you know...

The industry employs 73,000 people in the UK and invests £4.3billion in UK based research and development – making the UK a global leader in the sector. In 2018, the industry recorded a 4 year high in apprenticeships starts – a 169% increase since 2013; most at level 4 or above. *ABPI 2019 – 

The annual turnover of pharmaceutical goods in the UK in 2017 was over £42billion. *

A pharmaceutical technician’s average wage is £24,960 and the workforce is projected to increase by 4.9% by 2024 

Discover exciting apprenticeship opportunities in the healthcare industry with GSK

GSK has a challenging and inspiring mission: to improve the quality of human life by enabling people to do more, feel better and live longer. We are headquartered in the UK and have a global presence across more than 100 countries which allows us to make a real contribution to the health and wellbeing of people all around the world.

If you’re interested in making a real difference, and looking for an alternative route to college or university, then the GSK apprenticeship programmes have been designed for you! The scope and breadth of our business is reflected in the range of apprenticeship opportunities we offer to talented and ambitious school leavers. We offer roles across our company, from science careers to engineering, manufacturing and roles in our business operations, all across the UK!

You will receive hands-on experience in your chosen apprenticeship and the opportunity to play a key role in contributing to the future success of the company. While you learn on-the-job from industry leaders and earn a competitive salary, you will study towards a fully-funded nationally recognised qualification which could lead onto further study towards a Bachelor’s degree or even a postgraduate qualification.

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